Education & Outreach > The Goldfinch Teacher Guides

"Letters and Letter Writing" Teacher Guide


Letter Perfect

Writing letters is just like talking on paper. The only thing is, you can't save conversations, but with letters, you can. You can preserve them on paper, reading them over and over again. In this issue of The Goldfinch, your students learn about the role of history in letter writing. Before phones, fax machines, and e-mail, people relied on letter writing to keep in touch with friends and family. Through the years, many have used letter writing for everything from marriage proposal to contacting President Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Letters surviving across time give voices to people whose lives might otherwise be lost to history.

Writing Home

Letter writing was also popular during wartime. In "History in a Shoebox," a soldier writes to his sister, describing the conditions during the Civil War. He writes about illness, poor living conditions, and inadequate nutrition in the Civil War camps. A second feature, entitled "Wartime Letter Writing," details correspondence between a soldier who sent over to India and his wife, back home in Iowa. His letters, like all others written by U.S. soldiers, were censored. He was forbidden to write news of the war, discuss his work, or disclose his location. Can you imagine what it would be like if someone censored every letter you wrote?

A World Famous Diary

As you already know, the diary of Anne Frank is probably the most famous piece of writing to come out of WWII. What you may not know is that in the autumn of 1939, before the Nazis came to power, Juanita Wagner, a sixth grader at Danville Elementary School, chose a girl from the Netherlands to be her pen pal. Her name was Anne Frank. In an article about the Frank family, we tell you about the letter that Anne wrote to Juanita just three weeks after Germany invaded Denmark, and about the letter Juanita's sister received from Otto Frank, Anne's father, telling of their experiences of hiding and of Anne's death in a concentration camp.

How to Practice Your Letters

What would it be like to have eleven pen pals for more than fifty years? You'll find out in "Letters of the T.P.C." Twelve young women who attended Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) began a round robin in 1922, shortly after the women left college in Ames, Iowa. The letters traveled from one friend to another in a continuous circle. Each recipient in turn read the letters, added a new one of her own, then mailed the bundle of letters on to the next pen pal. This writing experience lasted until 1976, 54 years after the women attended college together!

Preserving the Past

A collection of letters exchanged between Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, is housed in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch. Rose wrote a biography of Herbert Hoover in 1920. After her death, the library wanted her papers because of her connection to the Iowa-bom president. When the archivist went to collect the materials, he also was able to collect letters between her and her famous mother.

Time may have yellowed the pages Laura penned to Rose, but it has also preserved the past in an Iowa archive.

In this issue of The Goldfinch, devoted to the history and practice of letter writing, we've explored some important themes you and your students will enjoy. Other than wartime letter writing, we also talk about the use of stagecoaches in mail delivery, discuss people past and present who have had pen pals, show you how to make a quill pen. And remember, if you have any questions or comments about this issue or our Teachers' Guide, there's only one thing you need to do. Write to us!

Summary and Discussion Questions

Pages 4-5

Iowa Letters Write History: The advantages of letter writing over the years.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think letter writing is as popular today as it was in the early 1900s?
  2. Would you rather write a letter or talk on the phone?
  3. If you were writing about life in the late 1900s, what would you want future historians to know?


Page 6-7

History in a Shoebox: Letters between a Civil War soldier and his sister detailing war life.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can writing letters benefit future generations of a family?
  2. Does letter writing always give us an objective perspective of history? Could it be biased?


Pages 8-9

Postmarked from Amsterdam: Tells the story of letters exchanged between Anne Frank and a young girl in Iowa during WWII.

Discussion Questions

  1. Would you keep a diary? If so, what kinds of things would you include?
  2. If you could pick a pen pal from any country, what country would you choose?


Pages 10- 11

Wartime Letter Writing Censored: Tells about the role of censorship in letter writing between a soldier and his wife during WWII.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you feel if someone censored every letter you wrote?
  2. Do you think censorship was necessary during the war?


Page 12

Letters of the T.P.C.: Details a letter writing round robin between a group of women for over 50 years.

Discussion Questions

  1. If you started a round robin, who would you include?
  2. Would these 12 women have remained as close if they kept in touch using other forms of communication?


Page 13

Ready to Write?: Tips for starting your own round robin.


Page 14-15

The Courier's Appointed Rounds: Explains the early days of mail service using stagecoach delivery and Rural Free Delivery (RFD).

Discussion Questions

  1. What's the difference between stagecoach delivery and Rural Free Delivery?
  2. Do you think that e-mail will replace mail delivery in the future?
  3. Will there always be a need for mail delivery?


Pages 16-17

Make a Quill Pen: Shows you the process of making a quill pen.


Pages 18-19

Laura and Rose: Letters Preserved in Iowa Archive: An account of an exchange of letters between "Little House" author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.

Discussion Questions

  1. If your letters were going to be preserved in an archive, what would you write about?
  2. If you were away from your parents, would you rather write letters to them or talk on the phone?


Page 20-21

History Mystery: History detective Sarah Frese talks about visiting the Hoover Library and asking questions about Hoover's papers and the "Little House" series.


Page 22-23

History Makers: Explains how fourth-grade students at West Library Middle school made friends at The University of Iowa through letter writing (pen pals).

Discussion Questions

  1. If you were choosing a pen pal at a university, would it be a student, staff or faculty member?
  2. What could writing letters teach you about writing in general?
  3. What are the pros and cons of letter writing vs. e-mail?


Page 24-27

Fiction: Logan's Letters: Story of Logan's journey to America and the letters he writes to his friend back in Ireland.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does this story tell us about the importance of letter writing?
  2. Why would you write to rather than call a friend in another country?


Page 28

Dear Diary: Tells about a young girl's interest in letter writing and her father's job as a mail carrier.


Page 30

Griffith Buck's Letter: Explains how a pen pal helped an Iowan learn about roses.

Discussion Questions

  1. If you had a pen pal from another country, what would you want to learn?
  2. What would you want your pen pal to know about Iowa?
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